Sasha at Crobar, New York



Sasha's new DJ set-up doesn't include a turntable, CD player, or mixer.

Excellent adventures in extreme digital.

By Daphne Carr
Photos by Amy Chace

At first, it’s a bit off-putting to see one of the world’s most famous DJs standing in front of 2,500 mad fans with only a laptop and a few digital controllers. At 2 a.m., when Sasha first takes the booth at crobar New York, he lets out a burbling blast of static with low beats below, and the crowd, which had been milling about in a half-trance wait, begins to bounce. When the music reaches its deafening peak, the lights go down and the Kryogenifex jets go off. Sasha, who’d been having a nervous chat with the sound guy, looks relieved. Not a glitch.

On Friday, December 3, progressive forefather Sasha began his half-year monthly residency, called Fundacion, at Chelsea superclub crobar. His method of DJ-ing at the party follows the trend set by his long-awaited summer DJ mix, Involver (Global Underground), which features 11 tracks produced using new Ableton Live software. In Sasha’s world, the days of turntables are numbered.

After their seminal Northern Exposure mix, UK-based Sasha and his musical partner John Digweed jumped the pond for their high-profile monthly residency at the now-infamous Chelsea nightclub Twilo (in the building that is now Spirit). Three years have passed since the end of that club and their reign in it, and people still talk of those epic sets as if their ears were still ringing (as if a Phazon system would do that!). In that time, New York City and the club world alike have undergone many changes. Sasha’s return residency is a symbol of the West Side nightclubbing district’s strong revitalization from the city’s dark Giuliani days. Likewise, Sasha returns to the crystal clear sound of crobar’s Phazon sound system (legend has it that he’d leave Twilo’s booth mid-set to hear a new record on its Phazon) is taken up a step by his newest challenge – a fully digital DJ experience.

FX Sans Decks
Sasha switched to a fully digital Ableton Live set-up while touring Asia, but its American debut at crobar marks a change in the future of digital DJ-ing. As he related to DJ Times in June, Sasha’s been working with Ableton Live 3 through most of 2004, tweaking his set-up and testing controllers before debuting them in front of a club crowd. During the recording of Involver, he tested tracks for crowds using Live as a third option to make loops and add samples to his set.

The Evolution UC-33 (top) and X Session controllers work great, for now.

A fan of the Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables, Sasha was a little reluctant to give up the tactical environment of a DJ-friendly controller for something as, well, lame as a computer mouse. His PR team reports that he’s been working with a variety of M-Audio devices, settling on the Evolution UC-33 USB controller and the XSession USB Midi Control Surface with crossfader, but is still insistent that a more traditional, analog-feeling device must be made. He is currently beta-testing a custom controller designed with Maven software, and plans to debut it during Fundacion.

Dave Hill, Jr., Ableton’s Public Media & Artist Relations Manager, said that Sasha is not alone in his desire for a better controller. “This spring at NAMM, there will be a bunch of controllers coming out, but there need to be dozens before DJs can really find the ones that work for them. It’s hard when you replace hardware with software, because you have more musical options, but you loose the physical. I know a lot of DJs are concerned with how going digital will affect their live show.”

And, he said, the DJ market has not been a forerunner with the technology. “I hear plenty about jazz guys in Europe using foot switches to trigger laptops. DJs aren’t innovative like that; they’re more conservative. But I think that the trade is somewhat obsolete, with something like Live and now it’s a whole new world of sound.”

With that in mind, Sasha’s totally digital turn serves two main points: one primarily creative, the other completely professional. The Ableton Live DJ setup allows Sasha to mix, cut, time-stretch and pitch-shift individual tracks in real time, a powerful set of tools both in-studio and onstage. The only problem with this, he told DJ Times, is that “committing to stuff is one of the difficult things.” Sasha might be suffering from browsing-anxiety; the thought that behind every clip might be another good track, another interesting sample. In that respect DJ-ing is becoming even more like sound-curating.

The other result of using Ableton is that his mix – a product of his creativity and spontaneity, a true improvisation – will be unique to the evening, which guarantees freshness in a world where Internet-released albums go from hot to overplayed before the month is through.

It used to be that you’d look up from your dancing and see a DJ strained over his tables, hands furious, records being pulled with well-practiced agility. But at crobar, Sasha gave the crowd a set that sounded equally entrancing but offered little physical evidence of its creation. In a field full of top-tier technique and white-label elitism, Sasha came to New York with a new mantra: Work smarter, not harder.

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Copyright 2005 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2005 TESTA Communications